Love Among the Ruins

A Sermon for Easter 6A    John 14:15-21    (Part Four of Nouwen series: Broken)

I used to sneak into the back of Pickard Theater at Bowdoin College every time I came to pick him up after a show. The late night drive from Portland to Brunswick didn’t seem so bad when I knew that his big moment came at the end, and I could creep up the stairs in the dark and watch him play his scene over and over. It was the end of “Camelot,” and he was young Tom of Warwick, the boy who gives King Arthur hope for the future when it seems like all the things he cared about have gone to smash.

It gave me a little shock to realize that my son played that part eleven years ago. In a few weeks he will graduate from college; the boy not as tall as I who wore the tights and sang along with King Arthur is gone, replaced by a man who resembles him in some ways, but who is different in many essential ways.

Although it was a difficult period in our family life, the year of my divorce, the summer we moved out of our home into a rented house and things would never be quite the same again, I look back on those late evenings fondly. I remember the stories he told about sleeping on the floor of the dressing room during the long period he was off-stage, and the night he woke up suddenly to hear the knights all clattering up the stairs and knew the time was short to get hooked up to the microphone he would wear to sing his little solo.

I remember the sound of his voice as he sang and the earnest admiration on his face for King Arthur, and for the actor who played the part. He knew then that he wanted to be an actor when he grew up.

And now he is grown up, graduating, still wanting to be an actor. The days when I must drive him back and forth are over; the days when I can sneak in and see the end of every show are gone. The times when I am the first person to hear his good news or his worries are also behind us.

“Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment…”

Today we meet the disciples at the pinnacle of their time with Jesus in life, on that last evening they spent together, sitting around a table, sharing a meal, asking their questions and protesting for the last time that they really do not understand. As they sit around the table, he tries to tell them all the things they most need to know in order to go on without him.

Because that is what they are going to have to do.

Just as the bread at communion is chosen and blessed, it is also broken. We are all broken, in our different ways, and the disciples of John, Chapter 15, are on the doorstep of a terrible loss. How tempting might it have been to remain locked away with one another? How difficult would it be to go out into the world and keep talking about all Jesus had meant to them? Where would they find what they needed to do the work?

And what was all this about an Advocate?

So much nicer just to sing a song, to remember that time of “happily ever aftering,” to say, “If Jesus were still here, we would all be bringing in the Kingdom together, by noon today!”

Every church has a period of history it views as its own Camelot:

•    When the Sunday School was so big that classes met on the stage and in the parsonage!
•    When the giant education building was not big enough and we had to run two sessions of Sunday School every week!
•    When Fred’s dad was the pastor!
•    You fill in the blank!

The problem lies not in the golden memories but in what we do with them. Do they delight us and warm our hearts? Or do they incline us to bitterness? Do they bring us to new life, fueling our hopes for the church and ourselves? Or are they a morbid fascination?

Anyone who has ever been a child, and that is all of us, has been tempted to pick at a scab. But what did our mothers tell us? You need to let the scab heal over in its own way. If you pick at it, you’ll get a scar. You’ll just have to live through the formation of *another* scab!!

"Our brokenness is truly ours. Nobody else's. Our brokenness is as unique as our chosenness and our blessedness. The way we are broken is as much an expression of our individuality as the way we are taken and blessed. Yes, fearsome as it may sound, as the Beloved ones, we are called to claim our unique brokenness, just as we have to claim our unique chosenness and our unique blessedness."
(Henri J.M. Nouwen, "Life of the Beloved")

Claiming our brokenness helps us to understand how we might be more faithful. If I know my particular sore spots well, it helps me to be patient with others whose wounds are similar, and perhaps, by giving me an ache from time to time, it reminds me that others need a little massage for the spirit, too.
We need to know our broken places in order to live with them and not simply live for them.

It’s easy to fall in love with our unique pain, our individual loss, our special wounding. Isn’t it? But suppose the disciples had chosen to dwell in their pain, their exquisite agony at being separated from the one who had been not just their teacher and their friend but the one they suspected might be God?

The poet Mary Oliver writes:

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

That’s just what Jesus is saying to his disciples, in a much more convoluted fashion. He’s saying, I’ve got to go, and you really need to let me go now. But I won’t leave you all by yourself. I’ll be with the Father, and you will have the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Comforter, a force with many names who is part of God, just as I am, but can stay here with you when I have to go. 

And by the way, show me you love me, even then. If you love me, he said, keep my commandments.
And what are his commandments in John’s gospel? Simply this: Love one another as I have loved you.

Love one another as I have loved you, he said, and that means wholeheartedly, forgivingly, bringing-alongishly, opening up-ishly, talking-it-throughishly, and most of all, neverendingly.

We show our love for Jesus when we show love for one another.

Love means giving when you’re not sure you have anything left to give. Love means taking a risk if it can save someone else, and even if it can’t.  Love means sticking with it even when things are hard and inconvenient and scary. Love means holding on until the end, and then, when the time comes, letting go gracefully. Love means believing that living or dead we are all connected in the great relationship that is God, all three of Him, all one of Her, what my daughter, when she was little, once called the Big Ball of Love.

And the Love that is our God is big enough to bind up our wounds, to heal our brokenness, the brokenness that is an inevitable part of being human.

But once, we want to say, it never rained til after sundown!

And once my children were all at home in their beds every night, but now they are growing up and beginning to leave the nest.

And once all pastors were male. And so were all Deacons in this church! How many of you know that Georgia was one of the first two women to serve Communion in this congregation? For some people that may have seemed like the end, but we know it was a beautiful beginning, the sharing of service and leadership among all people.

And once we lost something or someone whose death or departure broke something inside us, something we feared we could never, ever fix.

It may be true that there are some wounds that never heal completely. We take them with us throughout life, carrying scars that may be literal and tangible or injuries that can be seen only on our hearts and minds. But even in the ruins, even when the structure of our lives appears to be in a state of collapse, there is Love. And in that Love, in that presence of God’s spirit, we keep close to Jesus, the man who walked among us and suffered the same kind of betrayals and disappointments we experience, but who despite all that loves and forgives each of us.

That’s the Jesus the disciples knew, the one they would abandon and then grieve, but ultimately follow, with the help of the Spirit. They did not give up on him, but kept looking for love among the ruins. And from those ruins, they built Christ’s church.

We’ve all had those times when we sat in the ruins, grieving, heartbroken, wondering how we could possibly do anything other than weep. We have suffered the worst kind of losses, and we have lived through the gradual slipping away of all we have known and loved. Jesus is clear about how we are to heal; we will heal by loving, by loving each other and loving God, by listening to each other and listening for God’s word in our lives together. If we will love and listen, we will build a new life here, and we will know Jesus.

It’s our choice. We can look back to Camelot, or we can look ahead to the new world. We can fret over wounds both deep and superficial, or we can try again to love. And if we love, we may find the ruins are not a graveyard, but the foundation for what God is calling us to do and be next. We won’t know what we will find until we love among the ruins. Amen.

(With thanks to my friend Wise Cellist for the Camelot reference she found here. I haven't read Barbara Lundblad's sermon yet, so I don't know how much like hers mine is. A brief portion of this sermon came from something I wrote three years ago.)

5 thoughts on “Love Among the Ruins”

  1. songbird, you DO have a sermon. ah, I had a very small part in a church production of Camelot at my field ed church in seminary. At my very first sermon there included a reference to that very scene.
    I like what you do with the “camelot” eras at churches. Reminds me of my husband’s famous saying: “The worst thing a church can have is a glorious past.”
    but most of all, I like what you say about loving one another, and what it means. it works!

  2. Oh so beautifully written Songbird. Wish I could hear you deliver this… at my church. Love and hugs to you.

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